The Personal Computer Generation

When the IBM PC was released in 1981, it began a revolution for the business world. The days of the old fashioned office automation were about to be transitioned overnight. Even though Apple had been released for at least four years, the business world respected IBM’s entry even more due to its reputation and size. It wasn’t necessarily about the relative strengths but rather on shear business power that IBM had so much success.

Instead of focusing on the general topics of what happened back then, I’m going to focus on what I remember relative to what I saw and heard at the time. I’m not old enough to have been there from the time of Apple II first being released but I was fully aware of everything going on in 1979. At that time there were a number of players involved trying to become the big vendor for personal computers. Apple was way in the lead but other companies like Radio Shack and Commodore were doing well to compete. The first personal computer I ever tried was the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I. By today’s standards they were quite primitive (16K memory, tape drive, monochrome screen with block graphics) but they were so much more interesting than the DEC-10s that we had access to in high school. The terminal-based Digital DEC-10 was mostly text and so slow based on its 300 baud connection to the main computer.

Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I

I remember writing basic programs for the Radio Shack with one of the earliest ones being a number guessing program. Nothing fancy but it certainly captured the imagination.

In 1981 I was in my first official computer class in high school and I still remember the IBM PC being announced. I remember thinking how uninteresting it was based on its features and that most likely it would not compete well against its more powerful rivals. Obviously I had this completely wrong.

In the class, they had the slightly more advanced Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III. It had 48K of memory with a diskette drive. The tape drives were just terrible. Not only were they prone to not working, they were incredibly hard to get properly synced up. The diskettes were a godsend in comparison. I think the diskettes held about 160K of data.

TRS-80 Model III

In 1983 I bought a Commodore 64. I think most computer people my age bought one of these machines since they were cheap and also powerful compared to even the IBM PC. You couldn’t get much more value for money except for maybe the Atari computers. In the early days, the IBM PCs were selling for a large premium due to high demand and obviously IBM didn’t anticipate this. In fact, IBM was in a mixture of denial and excitement at the same time. They were excited with the PCs success but were worried about how it would cut into their other computer sales.

I used to play a lot of games on the Commodore 64 and was always impressed how well it did with so little. I just remembered the time I used it to do a difficult school project since it was next to impossible to get time on the shared computer at university. I was impressed that not only did it work on the Commodore 64 but that it ran just as fast as it would have on the much bigger system. My instructor was not impressed that we had used such an “inferior” computer to do his project and did not give us a good mark even though we had done exactly as he asked.

Commodore 64

Since I needed to work to go to Uni, I worked in a teacher computer lab in 1983. This was a great experience at a number of different levels. They had Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III machines so I was already familiar with them. This is where I got my first real exposure to Microsoft languages for compiled Basic, Fortran, and Cobol. I also learned assembly language for the Z80 chip inside the Model III. I learned how to un-assemble the code in the TRSDOS operating system and learned so much about how the system worked. One of the first things I tried was changing the logo of the TRSDOS screen for when the system booted up.

In the summer of 1983, I worked on my grandfather’s farm in Minnesota. He bought a PC for me to help run the farm. He was mostly interested in doing projections and account balancing. I learned much about the PC at that time and spent many hours learning how Lotus 1-2-3 worked. I was impressed with the professionalism of the PC and 1-2-3 and have remembered these skills for use in Excel. It’s amazing that the same techniques work today.

As usual it is getting way too late. So, I will close these 23 year old memories for now.

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Live near Brisbane, Australia. Software developer currently focused on iOS and Android. Avid Google Local Guide

Posted in Observations
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